Down To The Wire: Custom Industrial Dining Table

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Debate has been sparked over the last couple of years among insiders as to the longevity of “industrial” as a decorative genre. Like any stylistic movement, this one will make way for the next, whatever that may be. Inexpensively produced cookie-cutter furniture pieces — generally manufactured in India or China — have entered the market, sometimes giving design enthusiasts pause before they invest in an original item with historical provenance.

Artificially distressing steel and wood to give the look of decades-old, utilitarian factory items is not uncommon. Even fabricating gear-shaped patterns in steel to embellish stools and tables is not unheard of. It’s a way to loosely capture a factory look without, perhaps, going through the time, effort and expense of seeking out an original.

The idea of reproduction furniture is hardly a new concept, but does it kill a design movement when copies or non-authentic items enter the market? I say no. From what I can see, Herman Miller, Knoll, Emeco and many other furniture brands have done very nicely, thank you, simply by providing well-made originals, manufactured to a high standard. The debate over the integrity of materials used in new originals versus vintage ones we’ll leave for another day, but so long as there’s an interest in authentic design, quality and durability, industrial pieces will remain relevant. I’ve long used the example of the Toledo stool, which is now an icon of 20th century design and will hold both its aesthetic appeal and collectibility long after the movement that thrust it into the limelight has passed. The key is to focus on what you like and buy quality.

When this old cast-iron base — removed from a decommissioned wire-spinning machine — was first spotted, the pressing question was: How can this fixture be transformed into a functional dining table? Through some trial and error (and a good deal of grease removal), the custom table was completed via its pairing with a large section of refinished antique bowling alley.

The Fix Is In: Napoleon Mens Bicycle by The Jenkins Cycle Co., ca. 1895

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There is something to be said for tracing a design’s lineage. Modern utilitarian objects are expected to be refined and improvements made as they become more common and as technology warrants. We’re sometimes astonished when the primitive is, in fact, as refined — if not more refined — than the modern version.

Take, for example, this Napoleon bicycle, manufactured by the Jenkins Cycle Co. of Chicago (1895–1898). This lightweight, fixed-gear bike feels so light in the hand, one could mistake the carefully engineered steel frame for carbon fiber or aluminum. The black structure retains most of its finish along with what appears to be faded gold detail. The wood rims have survived without the hindrance of cracks or splits, giving them the potential to once again carry tires, while the head badge, showing some wear, sits proudly in place.

Though primarily a commuter bike, this model encapsulates the notion of quality craftsmanship with the simplicity of pared-back, functional design.

Sink or Schwinn: Steel Parts Cabinet, ca. 1940s

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Iconic Americana brands share a number of similar characteristics: innovation, good design, value and quality. Aside from these factors, truly enduring brands become synonymous with the items they sell. Coca-Cola, Levi’s, Chevrolet, Harley-Davidson and Mobil Oil are easily identifiable, partly due to the narrative that comes rolled into the fabric of each brand; Levi’s represents comfortable work wear, Coke is a joyful experience, and Harley-Davidson equals freedom.

In 1895 the Schwinn Bicycle Company opened its doors in Chicago, a city quickly becoming the hub of cycling production in the U.S. Its founders were German-American immigrants Ignaz Schwinn, an engineer who had built bicycles in Europe, and Adolph Arnold, a meat-packer who bankrolled the business’s start. Though a bicycle boom was underway, the following years presented challenges such as the rise of the automobile in the early 1900s, the Depression of the late 1920s and the growing influx of lighter-weight British-made bicycles in the 1940s.

Nevertheless, Schwinn remained competitive, striking a balance between innovative design and low-cost production. In 1934 it released the AeroCycle, which soon became known as the Paperboy or Cruiser. It featured wide balloon tires, a push-button bell and an imitation gas tank. Competitors quickly followed suit and rushed similar models to market. Before long, this design became the standard of bicycle styling.

Marketing and merchandising were also key to the company’s success. In the 1950s, in particular, Schwinn began scaling back its agreements with department stores that were re-branding its bikes to sell in-house; instead, it encouraged bike shops to stock Schwinn products exclusively. Such retail partners also carried a selection of genuine Schwinn-made parts and accessories to complement and ensure the long life of the bicycles.

Extra-large parts cabinets like the one pictured were uncommon and generally found in larger, flagship-level stores. This item would have sat pride-of-place on a bike shop’s counter as a utilitarian piece housing various Schwinn parts according to their serial numbers. The door can be raised to allow access to the inner, flat work surface, and the divided drawers below are easy to reach. Free of dents, this chest boasts its original handles and clear, sharp graphics on both the outside and inside.

Corner Shop: Workbench By Industrial Bench and Equipment Manufacturing Co, ca. 1940s

IMG_7506IMG_7507 IMG_7520 IMG_7526 IMG_7531 IMG_7538 ib1ib2ib3While admired today for their aesthetics, vintage and antique industrial furniture was considered utilitarian in its day. It was built using durable materials and therefore fabricated to withstand considerable punishment. Though it is appealing to unearth an unusual piece like this shop bench, it is doubly worthy of attention when the item possesses its original and untouched configuration and presents in superb condition.

The Industrial Workbench and Equipment Manufacturing Company was a later incarnation of The New Britain Machine Company, headquartered in New Britain, CT. They began churning out heavy-duty industrial furniture at the beginning of the 20th century and by the 1940s were known as, I.B. (Industrial Bench). The olive hew finish of their products was even referred to as, “IB Green”.

The discussion of quality is a common thread when referencing items of this era and I.B. prided themselves on creating equipment of a higher standard than many of their peers.

The heavy-gauge tubular steel leg sections are welded together, making a single-piece, rigid leg. This results in less sway, irrespective of whether or not the table rests against a wall. The legs and expansive feet are totally closed thus ensuring that dust and other unwanted waste does not accumulate in cracks and crevasses. A variety of optional extras existed including, rear and side plates (to ensure that materials did not fall from the work surface), maple or plain steel tops, lower shelf and drawers, complete with sliding inner tray.

This clean, original example not only possesses its factory configuration, including a drawer and lower shelf, the IB Green finish is excellent and the maker’s labels are clear and visible on the trademarked positioning of the two front legs.

*Special thanks to the Smithsonian Institution Archives and the National Museum of American History Library for their generous contributions to this post.

Top Brass: Weldon Lamp, ca. 1930s

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Much is made of a handful of manufacturers’ interpretations of the task lamp. Some have been highlighted in this blog: Ajusco, O.C. White, Edon, American Fixture Co. and more. These producers adhered to a strict code of pared-back design and unadulterated utility.

Add to this group Weldon Manufacturing Co., a quiet achiever in the brass, drafting-style light arena. This New York company created ranges that included desk, clamp-based and floor lamps.

This example, with a dual-clamp base, maximizes the ease in which the fixture can be relocated. While this feature proved advantageous in drafting scenarios, it was also embraced in workshops and garages alike. Also, the wide, embossed wing nut proved an ergonomic method of tightening the joint around the lamp’s telescopic arm.

The Coolest of Uhl: How To Buy A Toledo Stool

IMG_5136IMG_3216IMG_5586Dorset Finds is frequently asked what to look for when buying a Uhl Toledo stool or chair. Generally speaking, these items were built to last; however, below are some invaluable guidelines that will ensure the piece purchased meets  your needs and continues to perform for many years to come.

1. Establish the height you need. Much of Toledo’s seating is height-adjustable. That said, Draftsman stools are generally too tall for standard-height dining tables and desks, so you may require a chair instead.

IMG_70012. Assess the condition of the plywood seat and backrest. Being the most fragile components of the piece, the wood sections are prone to chipping and delamination. Minor separations can be easily fixed with wood glue.

IMG_7000 red3. Assess the wishbone lever arm. Look for any separations or breaks in the steel loops that cover the ends of the lever. These loops are susceptible to metal fatigue, especially if the original spring has been lost (major red flag) or replaced by a non-original part. The lever arm’s anchors are a crucial stress area in the chair’s design. A key sign that the integrity of this piece has been breached is wobbling in the seat post. If a break is detected, the example is best avoided.

IMG_2232IMG_52154. Look for non-original parts. As time passes, utilitarian furniture within an industrial setting is expected to be mistreated and continue to work. If damage was sustained, in some cases readily available parts were retrofitted purely out of a need for the chair to remain functional. Older models should feature a wing nut and brass spherical nut cap at the rear of the backrest. In later versions this was replaced with a black, round, hardened-plastic turning knob. Ensure that both the backrest and seat have contours. If either of these parts are flat, they’re replacements.

Aside from these structurally driven suggestions, the aesthetics are really a subjective element. Whether one likes rust and chipped paint, wood that’s faded or a glossy varnish, these tips will arm one with the necessary tools to go forth and buy well.

A Call to Arms: Articulating Light by American Fixture Company, ca. 1920s

Regular Dorset Finds readers will remember a post from earlier this year about the American Fixture Co. stable of industrial lighting. The mostly overlooked and underrated Milwaukee firm produced lamps with a mesmerizing array of movement, thanks to the unique double-knuckle system. While simple, the design provides freedom to illuminate a wide range of space.

This example carries an impressive 58-inch reach, while the longest single arm measures 2 feet. In total, 10 knuckles provide great flexibility and articulation. The white porcelain cord insulator is intact, and this example possesses the original manufacturer’s label.